Last June, Richmond-based artist Phil Nesmith traveled to the Louisiana Gulf Coast with box cameras, glass plates, chemicals and a portable darkroom to photograph the aftereffects of British Petroleum’s catastrophic 2010 oil spill. The resulting 22 works were recently on view at Irvine Contemporary in Nesmith’s exhibition “Flow.”
For his project Nesmith employed the laborious wet-plate collodion process, invented in the mid-19th century and long obsolete (though other contemporary artists, such as fellow Virginian Sally Mann, have revived it of late). Each of the images in “Flow” appears on a 7-by-5-inch black glass plate (some are diptychs or triptychs) and is unique. These are melancholic souvenirs that instantly render their contemporary subject matter antique. Smudges materialize where the hand-poured collodion has pooled unevenly, subjects veer in and out of focus, and surfaces are mottled with chemical drips and splats. Save for several tiny background figures and one full-length portrait (Eugene, 2010), Nesmith’s scenes are entirely devoid of people: instead we find mazelike wetlands, a clapboard church, a pile of booms stacked dockside, boats of varying types and sizes. Small 21st-century details, like a seated man with a cell phone or modern radar equipment, provide the work’s most disquieting moments.
Nesmith writes in an accompanying statement that he found the wet-plate method particularly appropriate for photographing the BP disaster, since the technique emerged around the same time that crude oil was first discovered in America. This is a bit like arguing that a Gutenberg-style press would render a text on modern repercussions of the Protestant Reformation especially effective, but the photographs resist appearing gimmicky or precious. They reveal none of the frantic pace or visual bombardment we came to expect from journalistic coverage of the disaster; instead these images present the oil spill as a ghostly ectoplasm clouding the edges of each rectangular scene. While the event unfurled in the public eye at bright, loud hyper-speed (BP’s real-time video feed documenting the relentless gush of oil from the ocean floor remains one of the more arresting visuals to have emerged), it is perplexing and provocative to view the same subject from a hushed remove. In certain respects we associate Nesmith’s “old-fashioned” esthetic with historic events (the Civil War, for example). In a subtle reversal, partnering this style with a contemporary disaster reminds us of the ways in which our response to such events—how we witness, process and respond to the incomprehensible scope of devastation—hasn’t really changed. Then as now we follow the story, taking photographs in its wake.
Photo: Phil Nesmith: Phantom, 2010, wet collodion photograph on black glass plate, 7 by 5 inches; at Irvine Contemporary.